For the first six months of our relationship, Carrie and I dated long distance. I was finishing rabbinical school in Los Angeles and she was living in Chicago. As any couple who lives apart knows, this is far from ideal. At the time, a wise friend who had recently married, after a period of being apart from her then husband, shared that there are skills you build in your relationship while you are apart that are often difficult to achieve when we are together.
She was right. Unable to see each other, we learn to cherish the moments we have together. We learn to give each other our full attention on a phone call or to make sure that we check in every day and share the details of our lives in conversation. In the same way that a book gives us more nuance than a movie of the same story, an extended conversation on the phone or a weekend together after weeks apart often becomes more valuable than a weekend we take for granted after years of being in the same home. Being physically distanced forces us to be soulfully close.
We are now months into our long distance relationships with our friends and loved ones. I want to believe that the advice our wise friend gave us applies to our lives today. I pray that we are building new skills in our relationships, focusing with more intention on the conversations that matter and making a book out of aspects of our lives that we often glossed over. I also wonder if we are learning how important it is to care for the parts of each other we ignore when we are with each other in person.
Rabbi Israel Salanter, a leading Jewish ethicist of the 19th century, is often quoted for a teaching about our vanity. He wrote that “most people are concerned about their own bodies and their neighbors’ souls. In order to improve our world we must leave our neighbors’ souls alone. We must instead worry about our neighbors’ bodies and our own souls.”
In this socially distanced world, we are discovering that we need not worry about what clothes we wear or what trends are being noticed. We are in a soul-focused world right now. A world where vanity and aesthetics have taken a back seat to the importance of being in relationship with those we love. It is not the same experience that we have when we are with each other in person.
And, like romantic relationships, long distance is rarely sustainable for a long time. But for a series of months, for Summer and perhaps Fall, while we long to be back with those we love, I hope we can take advantage of this opportunity to learn to love them better, to cherish what we know of them more than how we see them and to recognize that while this moment is far from ideal, perhaps it is a moment that can shape the future of our most cherished relationships for the better.